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Whatever Sturgeon’s route to independence, she still has to persuade people she's worthy of following there

Whatever Sturgeon’s route to independence, she still has to persuade people she's worthy of following there

Forty-eight hours after Nicola Sturgeon announced in the Scottish Parliament the timing for her second independence referendum, the SNP’s official web page was still to be updated. Four ‘x’s sat where Scotland’s historic date with destiny should be. A holding page, putting Scotland on pause.

And while the art of slick communication has previously been one of the party’s greatest assets, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that that editing oversight was just a hint, if one was needed, that no one really believes there will be a second independence referendum on 19 October 2023. Not least, Nicola Sturgeon.

Unlike her predecessor, Sturgeon is no gambler, but she does know how to hold a crowd. And last week’s announcement, to refer her own legislation to the Supreme Court, was less a call to arms than a strategy for appeasing the troops with some clever legal gymnastics.

According to Sturgeon, if the Supreme Court judgement finds in favour of the Scottish Government, it should be respected. And there will be a referendum.

And if it finds against, then that’s Westminster’s fault. And the next general election will be a referendum by proxy.

And while there was undeniably some drama in the actual date for the referendum being read out in the solemnity of the Scottish Parliament, what she outlined was actually a route map as to how not to get there. Certainly not by 2023.

For Sturgeon, the most cautious of politicians, this feels like a departure from the softly, softly, catchee monkey gradualism that marks her tenure as leader. But it has really changed nothing.

What is more surprising is how long it has taken her to get to this point and how quickly her troops can U-turn. To use a general election as a so-called proxy independence referendum is basically the Plan B that the leadership conspired to strike down so shamelessly at party conference back in October 2019. 

Back then, it felt like a press gang with both the FM and DFM unusually sitting on the stage, as members voted against a resolution by former Inverclyde councillor Chris McEleny to press forward with a Plan B. 

Westminster leader Ian Blackford warned members not to back the proposals and Nicola Sturgeon called it a “Unionist trap”.

Building a better future isn’t just about the facts of law, it is about the context within which all this sits.

I, for one, remember the real vitriol directed at McEleny as he walked to the stage in Aberdeen to press forward with his already rejected motion on Plan B which said “a pro-independence majority” at the next election should be considered as a mandate for talks to begin with the UK Government over an independent Scotland, by-passing the need for a second referendum.

The national secretary had deemed his motion not competent [although best not tell Sturgeon that now given its pretty much verbatim what she has now proposed] but by using a procedural mechanism to allow for emergency business to be taken from the floor, McEleny argued that Scotland’s independence was an emergency – a difficult one to argue against at an SNP conference.

But never mind the substance, delegates jeered and booed McEleny like the enemy rather than as a friend. It made for uncomfortable viewing. A party, normally so controlled, turning on one of its own for arguing, of all things, for an alternative route to independence. It felt like a scene from Lord of the Flies.

I can also recall the humiliation that Angus MacNeil MP had to endure for writing unilaterally and in impatience to the then prime minister, Theresa May, back in November 2018, asking for a Section 30 order on the back of Brexit.

He asked May if she agreed with Margaret Thatcher that if the SNP was to achieve a majority of MPs at an election, that would be a mandate for independence. No answer from her and the cold shoulder from party insiders who, in private, characterised MacNeil as a fool.

For Sturgeon, the most cautious of politicians, this feels like a departure from the softly, softly, catchee monkey gradualism that marks her tenure as leader. But it has really changed nothing.

And I can only wonder at the abuse meted out to Joanna Cherry over the last few years for having the temerity, as a QC and an acute legal brain, to suggest that first testing the legality of any referendum legislation put to the Scottish Parliament could be the way to get round the prime minister’s refusal to grant a Section 30 order.

It was only a matter of months ago that the First Minister was dismissing people in her own party for raising the possibility of a plan that she has now presented as her own. And maybe that’s fine. Maybe now is just the time. Maybe she just knows best.

But to treat people in your own party who try to progress innovative ways towards independence, which is surely your shared goal, with such contempt is instructive, surely, about the nature of the people who wish to build a so-called better Scotland?

It speaks to the character of the SNP’s leadership that it was unable to bring itself to utilise Cherry’s intellect, legal reputation and forward thinking. And it speaks to something rotten that a party of independence humiliates its own for suggesting a more nuanced way to get there. 

Whatever Sturgeon’s route to independence, she still has to persuade the majority of people that she is worthy of following there. And when you’ve lived through the grimmest of recent pasts, desiring a better future is of course a sentiment we can all get behind.

But while we are considering this better future, while we look with horror at what is happening in other countries over issues that have only recently grabbed the headlines – and the First Minister’s attention – this is a reminder that in Scotland now, and with the powers we currently hold, abortion remains a criminal offence; that women going to get an abortion still have to run the gauntlet of protesters telling them that what they are doing is wrong; and women in Scotland who seek an abortion later than 20 weeks, many of whom will face life-threatening situations, still have to travel to England to have that procedure done. 

Building a better future isn’t just about the facts of law, it is about the context within which all this sits. And acting in the here and now, on issues that we castigate other countries for, might make for a better present and persuade undecideds about the future.

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